Thanksgiving really gets short shrift these days with Christmas sales starting around Labor Day. But since 1973, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving has been a staple in our house. SPOILER ALERT: In the final moments, Charlie Brown and his pals pile into the wayback of his unseen parents’ station wagon. It’s how you got to your Grandmother’s house, too, if you were born before the era of minivans and SUVs.
Station wagon brochures, from the nascent days of automotive marketing, all showed the third row seat as a major feature. Third row seats weren’t for helicopter parents. They were more for Lear Jet parents who had kids but weren’t all that interested in having to interact with them in the car.
With the third row, the kids had their own area to themselves, approximately a football field from where mom and dad were up in the front seat, smoking Pall Malls.
In most wagons, you didn’t even face the same direction as your parents, so there was no chance of making accidental eye contact. You faced backwards, staring out at the guy driving the ten-wheeled cement mixer bearing down on you in traffic.
Even progressive parents from (our fair city) Cambridge, MA, who drove Saabs in the 1960s faced the kids the other direction.
(Image Courtesy AutomotiveTraveler.com)
Some wagons — mostly Ford Country Squires — featured third row jump seats that faced each other and folded up from the floor.
Charlie Brown’s mom — whose name was “WHAA WHAAA WHAAA WHAAA” — had a wagon with a unique seating configuration. Not only did it have a rear facing seat, but it had side-facing jump seats, too, so the whole Peanuts gang could bully Charlie Brown because of his anxiety, baldness, body image issues and feelings of inadequacy.
Station wagon rear door setups were different from manufacturer to manufacturer, too. By the 1960s, most manufacturers had figured out the mechanism to make a dual-opening tailgate that could either fold down flat like a pickup, or swing to the side for safe loading at the curb. Most of the time, the rear window rolled down into the tailgate, via a hand crank mounted on the tailgate, or a power-operated switch mounted on the dash, or close to the tailgate opening.
General Motors full-size wagons from 1971 to 1976 had a unique tailgate configuration, though. Informally known as “Clamshell Wagons,” they were equipped with what GM called “Glide-Away Tailgates.” Instead of rolling down into the tailgate, or flipping up like a hatch, the rear window glass on these wagons slid up into the roof via a switch mounted next to the tailgate opening. The tailgate itself slid down under the wagon’s load floor, either manually, or power-operated by the same switch that rolled up the window.
The advantage was the ability to open the rear cargo area even when parked in a tight parking spot, where there wasn’t room to swing a door or fold down a hatch. The downside was that they weighed about eleventy-thousand pounds, and they didn’t survive the fuel crisis for very long, as GM downsized its wagons by 700 pounds and two feet for 1977.
Station wagons started to fall out of favor the minute Lee Iaccoca started marketing nerdmobile Dodge Caravans and Plymouth Voyagers in 1984. (The Chrysler Town & Country showed up here in 1990). Wagon sales plummeted even further in the early 1990s, when people figured out you could buy a four-wheel drive Chevrolet Suburban for about what you’d pay for a loaded Buick Electra Estate Wagon.
GM gave it one more shot in 1991 when it introduced its final round of B-Body full-sized wagons, the Chevrolet Caprice, the Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser, and the Buick Roadmaster. The Custom Cruiser only made it until 1992, and the Roadmaster and Caprice bowed out in 1996. Pontiac never got an updated Safari wagon, as GMC stole the name for its early S-10-based minivan.
The only station wagon left that still offers a rear-facing third row seat is the Mercedes-Benz E-Class Wagon. If you argue that the Ford Flex and its Lincoln MKT cousin are “station wagons,” they offer a third row, but it’s forward-facing.
A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving airs Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018, at 8 p.m. EST on ABC.